A technological lifeline and virtual playtime
To achieve one of the University’s key priorities to enhance early childhood educational quality, Early Start researchers are working on developing online tools to support educators understand the development of an individual child. UOW has also funded the installation of specialised technology in 41 early childhood education and care services located in disadvantaged areas across NSW and the ACT, including nine Aboriginal child and family centres established by the Federal Government.
This technology, specifically web cameras and video conference software, enabled these centres to be directly connected with the UOW Wollongong campus, including the Early Start Discovery Space, to allow children to participate in virtual tours of the Discovery Space and help create a community of practice.
The Discovery Space offers virtual excursions for those who are in rural or remote areas, such as Walgett, Broken Hill and Wilcannia in the far reaches of NSW, who are not able to bring the children to physically visit. Using an online video conference platform, the children are transported into the Discovery Space through their interactive whiteboards and engage with staff in a variety of experiences.
Early Start researcher Senior Professor Tony Okely from UOW’s Faculty of Social Sciences, says the University is invested in leveraging the technology to deliver the best possible start in life for children experiencing vulnerabilities.
“The technology can be used in a number of ways, including for centres to connect with one another, and to help build their capacity and develop their leadership skills for the purposes of mentoring other centres – particularly those that are further along the journey.
Early Start has an engagement team that works with the network of centres, adding value to what they’re doing. They collect data, look at the quality of environments they’re in and continually work with them to be able to improve practices in their centres.
Of the 41 centres, 32 are located in some of our most disadvantaged communities (combined Socio-Economic Indexes of Australia decile between 1 and 4) and almost all of them support families dealing with complex issues or living in vulnerable circumstances. Close to 35 per cent of the children and families are from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.
“It’s like a learning lab for us. We’ve got all these centres who we partner with that are at varying degrees of engagement with us. They are part of the journey to see if together we can improve some of the outcomes in their settings, and for the children that attend those centres,” Senior Professor Okely explains.
Using data for good
Senior Professor Okely says a key part of the approach taken with the Early Start Engagement Centres has been to collect data on the children, educators, and quality of the learning environment and feed this back to the centres with the aim of improving child outcomes.
“Some of this can initially be quite confronting, but the centres realise our aim is to identify areas which they may wish to prioritise moving forward. We refer to this as a responsive research model in which we, the researcher, respond to the needs of the centres by providing data that they can use to drive change.
“To provide a snapshot of what’s happening, we feed the data back to the centres in a way that’s appropriate to their context. This opens up a conversation about the data and the centre’s priorities, and what the focus should be,” he shares. “It also provides additional support and guidance for services and educators as they work through the National Assessment and Ratings processes.”
Harnessing expertise to impact educators and children
With the data available, UOW early childhood experts collaborate with the engagement team to develop research-based training resources to aid the professional development of educators.
“It uses a combination of best practises around professional development, content experts and innovative models of delivery to offer training to even the most remote areas of NSW and the ACT. Continuing to work with educators to see changes in practice and outcomes for children is core to Early Start’s work with the Engagement Centres,” Senior Professor Okely explains.